Page 1: Biography
Caldwell, Keith Logan
Military aviator, farmer
This biography, written by Paul Sortehaug, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was updated in February, 2015.
One of New Zealand's greatest aviators, Keith Logan Caldwell was by his own account born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 16 October 1895. He was the son of David Robert Caldwell, a merchant, and his wife, Mary Dunlop McKerrow. The family moved to Auckland when Keith was still young. He was educated at King's College, Auckland; Rose Hill, England; and Wanganui Collegiate School. Prior to the First World War he was employed as a bank clerk in Auckland.
Although Keith Caldwell had obtained a commission in the Defence Cadet Corps while at school, his first attempt to enlist in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was unsuccessful. After this setback he raised the £100 necessary to gain him entry into the New Zealand Flying School, on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour foreshore, and it was there from October 1915 that he received his early flying instruction.
In January 1916 he left for England where he was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps. He was trained at Oxford, Norwich and Sedgeford before sailing for France the following July. There he joined No 8 Squadron stationed on the Arras front. While engaged on artillery observation work, Caldwell and his observer shot down their first enemy plane.
Towards the end of 1916 Caldwell was transferred to No 60 Squadron and in February 1917 he was promoted to flight commander with the rank of captain. By the time he left in October he had earned a Military Cross and a reputation as a dashing patrol leader. Tall and slim, with an athletic build and greyish eyes, Caldwell was apparently fearless and inspired great confidence in others. His nickname 'Grid' was acquired as a result of his habit of referring to an aircraft as a grid – which was colonial slang for a bicycle.
After a rest period, Caldwell was promoted to squadron commander with the rank of major and given command of No 74 Squadron. This unit, equipped with SE 5A biplanes, went to France in March 1918 where it earned the nickname 'Tiger Squadron'. Caldwell directed his men so competently that they were credited with destroying or driving down out of control over 200 enemy aircraft in less than eight months. This made them one of the most successful units to operate during that period at the front. Of Caldwell's experiences in combat, one of the most memorable was an aerial encounter with the German ace Werner Voss. He was extremely lucky to escape on this occasion, as he was another time when he was involved in a mid-air collision. After skilfully bringing his unstable aircraft down towards the ground he managed to jump clear just before it crashed.
By the end of the war Caldwell had at least 25 accredited victories. Many of the aircraft he defeated were Fokker DVIIs, the premier German fighter plane. Had he been as skilled a marksman as he was a pilot, his tally may well have featured near or at the top of the Allied 'ace' list. In addition to the Military Cross he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, the Croix de guerre (Belgium), and was mentioned in dispatches.
In August 1919 Caldwell returned to New Zealand. He worked for a year at his father's manufacturing and importing company, and then took up farming at Glen Murray in Waikato. On 16 May 1923 he married Dorothy Helen Gordon at Auckland. Caldwell was involved in various community activities, played golf and tennis, and was a founding member and first club captain of the Auckland Aero Club. Between the wars he served with the New Zealand territorial air force, commanding it from 1930 to 1937. During the Second World War he served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and was a very popular station commander at Woodbourne and then Wigram. He was posted to India in 1944 and England in 1945. That year he was made acting air commodore; he achieved full rank in 1946. He retired from the RNZAF in 1956.
After the war Caldwell farmed in the South Auckland area; he finally moved to Auckland in 1970. He died of cancer at Auckland on 28 November 1980, survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.